Saturday, October 31, 2009

国安是冠军!(Guo'an wins Chinese Super League)

Backdated from 11/18

Maggie Rauch at China Sports Today has you covered, here (recap) and here (preview; within, a recommended read: Shanghai's collapse in 2008).

There's one comment on a story about this game on ESPN, which reads in its entirety:

probably fixed again...

Beijing Boyce has some pictures of the celebration. Here's a video I took while biking across Workers Stadium:

Happy Halloween

I will be going as the horse from If you have a spare minute, you'll want to click on that link.

Costume construction began at 11:30 p.m. last night and continued until 5:30 a.m. I took about a couple hours to wrap things up this afternoon.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Breathing life into China's ancient instruments

If we put a microphone into the bottom half of our vocal cords, in that space before the larynx alters the transit of air into highly evolved sounds recognizable as language, what would we hear?

Literally speaking, not a whole lot besides air; but if this were a riddle, the answer you want may just be an unusual and wonderful wind instrument called the chiba, a stout bamboo flute from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) that descended from the ancient xiao.

The 60 or so people who attended Dandeli Art Space’s “Blooming Youth and Ancient Melody” on Saturday were treated to a free performance of the chiba, along with the guqin, a seven-string plucked silk instrument dating back some 3,000 years. Lots has been written before about the latter, and a simple search on either YouTube or YouKu will yield dozens of results. The chiba, however, is a relative unknown.

A young musician who goes by Xing Zhe explained to us that every chiba goes through an exacting selection process. First a specific type of bamboo must be found that can be cut to the appropriate length (usually an eighth of a foot, which translates literally into the name of the instrument). It is then hollowed out and placed in a damp and dark environment for a year, not unlike the fermenting process for fine alcohol. A master will then cut a mouthpiece and play it, sans finger holes, for as long as he deems it takes for the right sound to emerge. Only then will holes be cut, four along the top and one on the bottom, and declared ready for use.

A low-shelf chiba runs for about 4,000 yuan, while high quality ones can go for 10,000 yuan – though who can really put a price on antiques? – which partially explains why there are probably no more than 50 chiba masters in China. The other reason is because the chiba virtually disappeared from this country for 700 years sometime during the Song Dynasty. It continued its evolution as the shakuhachi in Japan, imported there by a Buddhist monk in the 8th century.

Sitting in the same room as a chiba performance is like you’ve ascended 4,000 meters into a holy mountain and plopped yourself next to a meditating arhat. The instrument is capable of eerie, magical noises that are evanescent and transitory yet firmly grounded in our world. The sound is reedy, raspy and muted, about as natural as a spring, like a melodized sigh or exhale. Occasionally you will even hear a squeak or, quite literally, the sound of breath, quite unlike the pachydermal blare of Western-style trumpets and horns – which is to say, not metallic and cold but alive, arising from our lungs.

Because there are only four holes on the chiba, the tiniest finger movement makes a difference; likewise, the simplicity of the design makes it so that the slightest change in breath – in strength, volume or breathing angle – will affect the sound. There is much room for interpretation, and the result can be as artistic as the creator wishes, as hollow as a ditty or infused with melancholy as a pastoral. An old tradition in Japan held that a man and woman would play shakuhachi melodies in a field, at a remove from one another. If the tunes didn’t match, the two could not meet – a harsh penalty, indeed, though somehow appropriate because the instrument is, after all, an extension of the soul.

Upon failure the passionate shepherd, we can only surmise, would fall to writing poetry.

Here is a video of Xing Zhe playing the chiba on Saturday:

Also on Youku.

AND OKAY, JUST A FEW MORE PARAGRAPHS ON THE GUQIN: In any given performance, the seasoned guqin player’s hand will undergo an amazingly complicated series of maneuvers to elicit the desired sounds, a feat that you really get to appreciate when you see it up close. The fingers on the right hand alone have to perform eight designated movements, such as the pluck, flick, vibrato, strum and slide (those may not be the technical terms). Musicians don’t play the guqin so much as coax it, sometimes taking incredible pains to massage a certain effect out of the vibrating strings.

What you get are sounds that are never stagnant: notes always carry with it the sidewinding tail of a mellifluous twang or nictitating echo, with shadows of melodies lingering an extra second after each rest stop.

I should also note that Saturday’s guqin performers, a young couple who were not music majors, asked I not use their names because, in the guy’s words, “we haven’t achieved the level of competence to be considered musicians.” That’s humility for you.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Leftovers from October 1

Via Evan Osnos, a stunning panorama of Beijing during the National Day parade.

Meanwhile, this is how I spent my October 1, and this is my friends and I getting really impressed by helicopters and jets (more so because we were officially being subversive by having our curtains open).

The People's Republic of China main celebration of its founding may have (irony alert!) been closed to the public, but Tiananmen was reopened the following day with parade floats, lots and lots of floats, which, like a light to insects, attracted unholy swarms of people...

Friday, October 23, 2009

Punk music in Beijing, and introducing Autobots, Deploy!

What Bar, located just northwest of Tiananmen and whose name has induced more than a few Abbott and Costello acts, doesn't get lots of press, so like many small bars trying to lure in an extra customer or two, it turns to live music. A couple weeks ago, another one of my friends' bands, Autobots, Deploy!, played at What Bar to a crowd of friends.

What made the night really cool, however, were the punk acts that went on before and after Autobots (most definitely not a punk band). The music was loud, furious and expressive, something you don't often get in China. Video below.

For more about punk in China, see here and here.
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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Traveling in Dalian

Last month I spent a day walking around Dalian and came away impressed. I ended up writing a short travel article for City Weekend, which, at this point, may or may not see the light of day. I don't think they'll mind me posting it here:

Beijing is to gates and bridges as Dalian is to squares and plazas, or “guangchang,” hundreds of them that together tell the story of the city’s history.

Most visitors to this port of 6 million people will begin at Xinghai Square, or “Sea of Stars,” which is the biggest municipal square in Asia and well worth a visit. But for something less touristy, go to Zhongshan Square at the city center, a giant roundabout with 10 off-shooting avenues surrounded by some of the most impressive concession-era architecture this side of Shanghai. You’ll think you’ve been warped to a different time and place.

Dalian’s strategic location by the sea invited foreign empires at a time when it was chic to invade China, first the Russians in 1898 and then the Japanese in 1905. The Russians, enamored with French architecture, modeled Dalian after Paris, which explains all the traffic circles and why Zhongshan gives off vibes of the Arc de Triomphe. Ogival towers and Gothic buildings of large stones and narrow windows add to the mystique.

The Japanese, also under the influence of European culture, added several more buildings in classical European style to Zhongshan Square, including Yamato Hotel in 1914, now called Hotel Dalian, which is where to stay if you want to be immersed in history (4 Zhongshan Square, (411) 8263-3111). The rotary’s center island is dressed up with trees, park benches and pigeons, and at night it comes alive as locals of all ages gather to socialize and dance. Peering out from the center, you’ll see buildings of different shapes and styles standing sentinel on either side of the streets, leaving the horizon unobstructed – faintly reminiscent of looking down Chicago’s Michigan Ave.

Dalian is atypical of Chinese cities, as it’s fashionable yet understated, modern and clean. If you must get your tourist fix, hike coastal Binhai Road, visit Forest Zoo or either of the two water amusement parks. Otherwise, stroll through Dalian’s charming parks and outdoor markets or relax on the beach and soon you’ll see why the China Expat Association calls Dalian the most livable city in China.

I must point out that the most incredible part of the city, from my vantage point, was an outdoor market tucked behind Russian Square in the northern part of the city. It's not on any maps and may or may not have a name, but it's absolutely incredible, a labyrinth of stalls selling a veritable hodgepodge of goods, from noodles to DVDs, meat kabobs and eggplants to socks and phone cards, small cooked pigeons to sea intestines eviscerated in front of your face. Like so:

Had I visited the market a few hours before I did, I would have had the pleasure of seeing a lamb slaughtered on a three-wheel wagon. Mmmm.

Dalian, a hub of commerce and leisure, receives more than 10 million visitors a year, despite not having any one recognizable draw like Harbin's ice sculptures, Qingdao's beer or Hangzhou's lake. Relatively young (est. 1898), there are no ancient temples, allusive rivers or misty mountains. Yet thanks to former mayor Bo Xilai (who hasn't been doing as well in Chongqing), who made the city a model of cleanliness, Dalian constantly hosts festivals and conferences, like Summer Davos, held by the World Economic Forum in September, and the International Fashion Festival (videos from which will be up on this blog later this week).

The two water amusement parks are both tourist traps (though Forest Zoo is actually really nice) and the beaches are average at best, but Dalian is a city that doesn't need any big attractions. Go see the city for what it is, and see how tempted you'll be to remain.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Redbucks at Paddy O'Shea's

Since its first performance on February 27, when the band was known by a different name (several different names, actually), The Redbucks have slowly made their up in the Beijing music scene, playing at spots like Ginkgo's on Andingmen, Jiangjinjiu near the Drum and Bell, 2 Kolegas near Chaoyang Park, MAO Livehouse just north of Nanluoguxiang and, in the video below, Paddy O'Shea's, an Irish bar on Dongzhimen Outer St., on September 25. (There was also a show at a racetrack in South Beijing, organized by a Hanggai contact that's somehow connected to -- and here it gets a bit fuzzy -- the new U.S. ambassador to China's daughter, who apparently is a Redbucks fan. The band members are hoping they might play in front of President Obama when he finally visits.)

If you haven't heard them yet, take it from me: it's a good time whenever they take the stage.

Here's their official bio:

Hailing from America’s East, West, North and South, the Redbucks are Beijing's most notorious and rowdy group of American Bluegrass musicians. Whether these ruckus-raising ramblers are singing about love and lust or moonshine and misdemeanor, there will always be something to dance, drink or sing to – and often all the above.

Later this year: gig with bango legend Bela Fleck? Stay tuned...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In utopia

This summary is not available. Please click here to view the post.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Review of Midori's performance at Beijing Concert Hall

Now up on the Beijinger blog:

Approaching her 38th birthday, Midori is no longer the precocious child who performed with the New York Philharmonic at age 11, in front of President Ronald Reagan at 12, made her first recording (of Bach and Vivaldi) at 14 and delivered a 100-minute recital at Carnegie Hall four days before her 19th birthday. There is a difference between watching a child, however professional, navigate the minefield of a terribly difficult composition and a mature musician do the same; more is expected of the latter, and yet less seems at stake. The failures of adults are so much less keenly felt.

But make no mistake: even if Midori has ceded some of her spotlight to younger musicians, she has not lost the ability to keep audiences rapt when the lights are on her. On Friday, she expertly navigated Sibelius's roiling arpeggios, glissandi and multiple octave double stops on her way to a flawless rendition...

Funny story about the eight-word quote, "I'm going to play Kreisler, Recitativo and Scherzo": I brought a digital recorder and taped Midori's playing for the sole purpose of catching her words on the off-chance she said anything, but when the critical moment came, I was so far away -- and the tape recorder was on the ground -- that the sound quality was quite bad. At home, I could barely make out what she said. I literally spent an hour Googling terms like "mezzantino" and "mestizo," "wager" and "chrysler" and "krizer," "mezzetta music term" and "mezzan tival" and "classical music ragner scherzo" ("scherzo" was the easiest to get). You musicians, feel free to make fun of me here. I was ready to give up on two occasions. And then, at the one-hour mark, I typed -- quotation marks included --

"and scherz

At the exact moment I imputed the Z of scherzo, Google's auto-search suggested "kreisler recitativo and scherzo." And sure enough... bingo.

For those keeping track at home, Microsoft Bing: 0; Google: a lot

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The photos of Lu Guang

A few days ago the New York Times presented a slideshow of photos by Lu Guang, this year's recipient of the $30,000 W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography, and the images sort of defy words. I'll not waste any... go here. (The picture of the girl is taken from the World Press Photo site.)

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

New rising: The Urinal in China Business District


China's media operation deserves all the mockery it gets, and more. From China Hush:

The new building design for People's Daily (人民日报) has been confirmed, the selected winner was designed by Professor Zhou Qi (周琦) of Southeast University, School of Architecture. However, once the plan was made public, netizens immediately started heated discussions. Some people say it looks like an iron, some say it looks like an aircraft carrier or even a urinal pot (an old style vessel for urine, used in bedrooms). Also some people criticized the building design is a shanzhai version of the Burj Al Arab ― Dubai's seven-star hotel in United Arab Emirates.

Related... does anyone know when they're gonna build that Magic Mountain over the burnt hotel next to the CCTV building so that there isn't a monument to stupidity in the middle of CBD? Or can we take a page from Rex's book (G.I. Joe -- awful, awful movie, made infinitely worse by the prospects of a sequel) and inject it with nanobots to give it a new metallic face?

Monday, October 12, 2009

Turandot review


On Beijinger, here.

The artistic direction was also underwhelming – and that's being charitable. Zhang was the man who, for the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies, gave us synchronized drumming, oversized cycling and a colony of acrobats crawling on a gigantic sea anemone beneath levitating fire-banners (how else could you describe this?). There was no such inventiveness this time around. There were no pyrotechnics or bursts of creative flair.

Saturday, October 3, 2009